Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 31, 1997 12:02 AM

BALTIMORE -- Richard Belzer may be a big-deal prime-time television star, in his fifth season as the soulfully deadpan Detective John Munch on NBC's celebrated "Homicide: Life on the Street." But so what?

He hasn't done his stand-up routine since May, and hasn't regularly plied the trade for a good five years.

"I'm very rusty -- and, for me, uncharacteristically nervous," he says, worrying about his performances tonight through Sunday at the Improv in Washington. When Belzer is cooking, comically speaking, he can take his native hostility, acrid cynicism and conspiratorial turn of mind, spice the confection with keen intelligence and unprintable Anglo-Saxonisms, and whip the whole thing into gales of laughter.

When he's not, he can still take pride in being the sort of comedian who, as a critic once noted, leaves his audience wondering whether he liked them.

A tall wraith of a man dressed entirely in black (he's 6 feet 1 and weighs 150 pounds), he addresses today's audience (a reporter and a photographer) through black-rimmed glasses. "My skills come from going on every night," he says in a tone of suppressed hysteria. "When I was the emcee at Catch a Rising Star in Manhattan, I was working five, six, seven nights a week, from 9 o'clock to 2 or 3 in the morning, so it wasn't hard for me to go onstage. Whereas now it will be . . . " -- he trails off. "I'm a little nervous," he repeats.

He stares down into the abyss. Well, actually, it's a cheese omelet with a side of sliced tomatoes. But judging from the look on his razor-thin face, there is something dark and unsettling about it.

So how much funny material has Belzer stored for the winter?

"Don't pressure me," he replies. "I have little notebooks that I write things in, and a little tape recorder that I can speak four or five words into. Other comedians like to write down their jokes word for word. I have to come onstage and just start talking about what the idea is, and then I find it on my feet. Like: Elvis was Jewish -- did you know that? Elvis's mother was Jewish. Her mother was Jewish. So then I can do something on Elvis's bar mitzvah and what that would have been like." Belzer belts out a Hebrew prayer as the King might have done it: "Baruch" -- (pout) -- "Atah" -- (snarl) -- "Adonai."

His table mates laugh. But the jokester seems to be dead serious concerning his claims for the heritage of Elvis's mother. He smiles a little self-satisfied smile when one of his listeners asks a series of skeptical questions, and solemnly raises his right hand to swear to the truth. "Check it out," he dares.

(Well, Elvis's mom, Gladys Smith Presley, according to published reports, may have had a Jew or two among her ancestors -- not her mother, though, and not her grandmother either -- and the King did put a Star of David on her gravestone. But Belzer's bald assertion is a huuuge stretch.)

He also claims that onetime House majority leader Hale Boggs, who disappeared in 1972 in an airplane over Alaska, was chauffeured to the airport for the ill-fated trip by "a young Bill Clinton."

(This, by most accounts, is absolutely true. Clinton was a Texas coordinator for George McGovern's presidential campaign when Boggs passed through San Antonio on his way to Alaska and met the future president. Belzer, by the way, is not a Clinton fan. "I think anybody who wants to be president when they're 10 years old is mentally ill," he says good-naturedly. "He has sold out the liberal movement and he's sold out the progressive movement. He's a contemptible piece of {expletive} as far as I'm concerned.")

Belzer is equally insistent in his view that American democracy as a whole has been sabotaged by a sinister conspiracy of the military-industrial complex, which launched a secret coup with the assassination of President Kennedy. "Unless you believe in coincidence," he says dismissively, "conspiracy rules the world. . . . Don't get me started on politics," he warns, but the man is unstoppable.

"It doesn't matter who's president," he says, back to his suppressed hysteria. "Presidents are part-time workers in this country. You think they have any power? You think they're stronger than the Pentagon and the defense companies that run the world?" When one of his table mates attempts a reply, Belzer cuts it off. "These are rhetorical questions," he says.

He's at lunch in the nearly deserted Explorers Lounge, a restaurant with Jumanji decor beside the Inner Harbor, where he leases a condo during the eight months that "Homicide" is in production. The critically acclaimed cop show, which was almost canceled a couple of times before NBC committed, has been doing quite well this season on Friday nights at 10, where it has begun to pull respectable ratings against ABC's "20/20" (which it trails) and CBS's "Nash Bridges" (which it beats).

On the third Friday of next month's ratings sweeps, Belzer will shine in a moving episode titled "Kaddish" that is largely devoted to Munch's memories as he investigates the rape and murder of a woman he was sweet on in high school. In April, meanwhile, Belzer will film his comedy act for HBO at New York's Supper Club -- a special tentatively scheduled for broadcast next September.

"I don't quarrel with anyone who feels they can't do stand-up anymore," Belzer says. "My friend Rich Lewis stopped doing stand-up for two years. There's something about it that's hard to explain to people who don't do it. You can't imagine what it's like to make a room full of strangers laugh -- who've had a few drinks, who have a lot on their minds.

"The analogy I like to use is I'm a bus driver and the audience is on the bus. They can either sit back and relax and go along for the ride, because they know I'm a good driver, or if I'm a little nervous, they think they are all gonna be in a terrible crackup," says Belzer, who played the decidedly unrelaxed Jewish bus driver taking a group of black men to the Million Man March in the recent Spike Lee movie "Get On the Bus."

Belzer cracks a smile -- an unexpectedly sweet one. "The thing about a live audience is sometimes you walk out and say good evening' and the audience is right there from the first second. And sometimes they're just not there. You have to really work -- and I mean work -- to win the audience over. It's like building a {expletive}-ing road."

At 52, Belzer knows a lot about toil and trouble. In a life that hasn't been, as the saying goes, for sissies, he learned to subsist on yogurt and unspent cab fare (his only compensation during his early days in the comedy clubs), beat a cancer diagnosis and drug use, and ultimately found happiness with his third wife, actress and former Playboy model Harlee McBride, and her two grown daughters.

He came to comedy 25 years ago, after a hard and bitter youth in Bridgeport, Conn. His mother regularly beat him before she died when he was 20; his father committed suicide. Richard earned his keep at various times as jewelry salesman, dockworker, census taker, schoolteacher and, for a couple of years in the late 1960s, newspaper reporter.

"Like all reporters, I started in obituaries and eventually got to cover court hearings, Rotary Club luncheons, mayoral press conferences," he says. "I wanted to do writing -- Ernest Hemingway and all that. Then somewhere I got obsessed with show business."

In 1971 he spotted an ad in the Village Voice for "funny male and female actors," and found himself auditioning for "The Groove Tube," an underground theater piece that ultimately became a cult movie. "I got there and there was a line around the block," he says. "But when it was my turn, I kind of exploded, I did all these characters and impressions I used to do in school."

"The Groove Tube" launched Belzer's career; he went on to become the warm-up comedian for the original "Saturday Night Live," host a New York radio show and star in various comedy and talk shows for cable television. "I've always been funny, making friends laugh," he says. "I got thrown out of every school I ever went to -- private school, Hebrew school, yeshiva. God personally expelled me."

Indeed, Belzer seems to enjoy the idea of expulsion, to take perverse comfort in alienation. Although he does charity work for homeless families and boarder babies while in Baltimore, he hasn't voted since 1968 -- the year his heroes, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., were murdered, and his father committed suicide. A resident of the South of France, where he and his wife share a villa, he doesn't even have a real home in the United States anymore, preferring to stay in the leased Baltimore condo and a series of hotel rooms.

It's ironic, of course, that Belzer is an employee in good standing of none other than General Electric, the corporate parent of NBC and one of the world's biggest defense contractors.

"You mean GE, the killing machine?" he concedes. "My feeling is this: In order to take down GE, I gotta get on the inside." He grins. "What happens to people like me in this country is one of two things: Either they get crushed and embittered and disappear, or they become successful, they get money and they're not rebels anymore. I'm not going to not do Homicide' and picket GE because they make submarines.

"I feel that when I go on TV, I still speak my mind. I haven't been defanged. It's just the enormity of what we're up against. If you can carve out a niche in your life and feel honorable, then you're doing all right. There's not going to be another Bobby Kennedy or Dr. King to galvanize people and overthrow all the mean people. You know, the mean people won." CAPTION: Richard Belzer, set to do a little standup at the Improv starting tonight: "You can't imagine what it's like to make a room full of strangers laugh." CAPTION: "Other comedians like to write down their jokes word for word," Belzer says. "I have to come onstage and just start talking about what the idea is, and then I find it on my feet."

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